Back when the Internet was very young and I was still working at the International Herald Tribune (which no longer exists, sadly), we only had one computer in the newsroom that was connected to this new marvelous invention. The concept of interactivity was new and fun, and we were all agog at even the most basic web sites (which was pretty much all there was back then). One offered a quick 10-question quiz and would then spit back the career to which the responder was most suited, in large block letters filling the screen. We all gathered around and took turns – “teacher”, “librarian”, “doctor”, the machine spit back, offering the same mundane responses to enough different people that we were pretty sure they were just on a loop somewhere. Then it was my turn. I answered the questions, the computer went searching for a few minutes, a small crowd of us waited, and then practically fell over laughing when the words “field marshal” filled the screen. Various other coworkers tried the quiz after that, but none came up with a similar career suggestion.
My colleagues at various places over the years have seen me as a leader, someone who speaks her mind, someone who probably complains too much but someone who, at the end of the day, is pretty competent and will get the job done. Some of them liked me, some of them despised me, but no one was without an opinion on the subject. My bosses have seen me as a complainer, a fomenter of revolution, and yes, someone who is pretty competent and will get the job done. Most of them were relieved when I moved on to another job and left them in peace. Most of them would probably liked to have fired me but very few were courageous enough to actually do it.
Which brings me to my current situation, which is a strange middle ground of being the boss of a few, the employee of many (my owners) and serving at the pleasure of an entity called France Galop, which is the governing body of horse racing. As a licensed public trainer, I am the master of my ship, the owner of my own business. Sort of. But France Galop sets the rules, and they give out the licenses. Which they can also take away if they so choose. And this is why most trainers walk softly and skip the big stick. One has to be careful of what one says, not to run afoul of the Powers that Be. The Powers that Be also fund most of the racing media – Paris Turf, the daily racing newspaper, and Equidia, the racing television channel, depend on France Galop for funding. Consequently, they are usually not the bearer of bad news – or certainly not anything bad when it comes to France Galop.
I’ve had no problem with France Galop, per se, since I started training. I got very good scores on the exams to pass the license, I’ve never broken the rules, my horses never fail a drug test and I pretty much keep my head down. But as anyone who knows me knows, I just can’t keep quiet if there is something that is bothering me that I think can be fixed. And right now at France Galop, there is quite a lot that needs to be fixed. As I write this, racing at my home track in Maisons-Laffitte has been canceled for the day because of a strike by track workers. This followed news last night that France Galop plans to close our track for good as part of budget cuts. The problem is, at the same time France Galop wants to spend 160 million euros to renovate Longchamp, in the guise of buffing up France’s international image.
Longchamp is filled to capacity for only one day a year: The day of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The rest of the time, the place is practically empty – like most racecourses in France, which is another problem. The nationwide betting handle has gone up for years and now has stabilized, but on-track attendance has plummeted. There are plenty of reasons for this – it’s easier to bet at home online, for one, and Equidia does such a good job with covering the racing that you can see more at home than you can at the track, too. Going racing isn’t very attractive when you can’t see what’s going on, there aren’t enough windows open to get a bet on if you wanted to and – most importantly, if you ask me – there’s nothing decent to eat. Despite all this, though, betting is still very strong in this country. It did edge down just slightly in the past year, which is causing the wholesale panic at the PMU national betting monopoly and at France Galop, which is funded by the PMU.
The situation reminds me very much of the plight of newspapers when the Internet was born. Owning a newspaper used to be a license to print money along with the latest gossip. But then the Internet came, and all of a sudden profits stabilized, and then they started to drop. And then the panic began. Newspaper dynasties thrashed about looking for the next profit stream. They sponsored conferences, they developed web sites, then tried to make people pay for the web sites, all the while cutting the budget nonstop – from the bottom, where the core of their product was produced.
France Galop seems to be doing the same thing. In closing Maisons-Laffitte to help pay for Longchamp, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. At the same time, they’re spending money on absolutely ridiculous ventures like sponsoring a race meeting in China that turned out to be nothing more than a hastily put-together party in some Mongolian corn field with horses that Coolmore considered castoffs and so could be sacrificed for the one-way trip to Neverland. There has been no disclosure on just how much this little venture cost.
France Galop also has decided that recruiting new owners is a priority. The ethics of this decision astound me. If the governing body of French racing is recruiting owners, to which trainers will they send them? Since they have decided to close the track at Maisons-Laffitte and seem to have a similar disregard for the training center here, I can’t imagine I’ll need to sit by the phone and wait for owners sent by France Galop to ring up.
There are two departments within France Galop that are, ostensibly, there to help new owners and take care of existing ones. I don’t know what the budget of either of these departments is, but I DO know that I’ve tried to solicit their help on various occasions with getting new owners approved and through the dreaded “dossier” process, and not once have I had any luck. I called the famous “departement des proprietaires” three weeks ago with a question on the owner application process. No one could answer the question, but they took my name and number and promised to call back. Still waiting.
And let’s not even get started on the famous FRBC, or French Racing and Breeding Commission, which, according to its mission statement, “is to provide you with information on racing and breeding in France.” I don’t know what their budget is, either, but I do know that their primary role seems to be to send attractive young ladies in very short skirts to man a table at French sales and hand out hats. At one such sale, I had a prospective owner with me who was very keen to get started. I went to the FRBC table. “This man would like to be an owner. Could you please sign him up?” “Ah, mais non,” came the reply. “That’s France Galop. It has nothing to do with us.” Ah. I see. Nice hat, though.
While France Galop ponders its role in looking for new owners, I’ve personally deposited the “dossiers” of more than a dozen new owners in the past five years. They have all been for non-French owners, and each one has been an ordeal of paperwork that I have had to fill out and explain to new owners, trying all the time not to discourage them with all the ridiculous formality. Instead, I should be able to pick up the phone to the famous “owners’ department,” tell them that Mr. X wants to own a horse with me and THEY should take care of the rest. As it is, you can’t even get them to answer the phone.
It seems, rather, that France Galop is living in a fantasy world, where a fairy godmother is going to wave a magic wand and Longchamp will be filled to capacity every day it has race meetings. Rich owners trailing money will send top-class horses to fill the stables of the big trainers in Chantilly. Syndicates, English-style, will take up the rest, sending second-tier horses to only slightly smaller trainers. In this fantasy world, there are no bad horses, small trainers or small owners. Only the biggest and best will do. The only trouble is, the inhabitants of the Ivory Tower in Boulogne have forgotten that horse racing is actually a pyramid, and without the base, the pyramid collapses. There are very few Group 1 horses in the world, and very few owners who can afford them. There are, though, plenty of less-talented animals, and those are the ones who fill the cards and keep the PMU money coming, because bettors love big fields. A four-runner Group 1 race at Longchamp doesn’t bring in a fraction of what a 20-runner handicap at St. Cloud will provide.
I’m not sure where the action in Maisons-Laffitte today will lead, but it does seem to be the opening salvo in a much-needed revolution. Being a foreigner and serving at the pleasure of the King, I’m not sure what role I might get to play in this conflict. But if the chance arises, perhaps I can once again try to live up to my job description.